Reflections on Culture
in the Age of Confinement

The planet Venus is exceptionally bright right now, but I have learned that the stars seem brighter because there is no longer so much pollution from planes, most flights having been grounded. I have never seen the stars in North Yorkshire shining so brightly. Up here I am woken early in the morning by squawking pheasants, lulled to sleep at night by the calls of owls out hunting. News of the pandemic that has spread across the world reaches me, of course, and I am observing the strictures of self-isolation, but there is a great gap between the images of death and desperation on television and the growing number of newborn lambs leaping joyfully across the fell sides above my village. There is a sense of existing in a parallel universe that feels surreal.

This period of compulsory isolation, no matter how long it lasts, is going to change things for all of us. The aftermath of any catastrophe, whether war or natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis or famines, is never easily or quickly resolved; superficially the structures of everyday life may appear to be returning, but the world of people affected by all that they have experienced has shifted on its axis, only slightly for some, but terribly for others.  None of us had ever experienced the shutting down of an entire country, but now we are starting to know what it feels like, and when it ends, our lives will never be quite the same again.

Whether culture can help us come to terms with this unprecedented situation is the question Ben asks us to consider. It is an important question, but it also invites us to think about what we understand by our relationship to the word ‘culture’, the term that Raymond Williams said was ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’ (Williams, 1976:76). As academics, culture is our business, talking about culture is our bread and butter; but as Williams also pointed out, the complexity of the word lies in the problems which derive from the wide variations of its use. For some, the word has elitist connotations, for others it has dark ideological connotations, for still others it is a synonym for civilization – and there is another hugely complex term!

Williams reminds us that in its early uses, the term ‘culture’ referred to the tending of crops or animals. The Old English word for ploughshare, coulter – derived from Latin culter, meaning knife (Italian coltello, French couteau) – and ploughing, as I see every year in my village, is the essential first step to what will ultimately result in the harvest. Thinking of that agricultural connection between culture and cultivation is an enabling image, just as thinking about the etymological connection between texts and textiles serves to remind us of the vital link between spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing on the one hand and the academic activities of reading and writing on the other. In the 21st century words like ‘culture’ or ‘textuality’ may seem to have intellectual connotations, but behind those words is the concreteness of the land, of planting and sowing, of husbandry and harvest, of cloth-making and stitching.  As I sit knitting little garments for the grandson due to arrive later this summer, I think of the Scottish Makar Jackie Kaye’s lovely poem ‘The Knitter’: ‘Time is a loop stitch. I knit to keep death away’.

One thing that I would like to see emerge out of our current crisis is greater recognition of the rootedness of our academic language in the practicalities of the everyday. A first step would be to recognize the need to make our ideas accessible, to ditch the jargon to which we have become accustomed, and to use clearer language that does not obfuscate. This does not mean dumbing down – far from it, as many great thinkers have proven, expressing their thoughts in ways that open up their ideas to countless others.

A second step would be to listen harder, to try and understand more about what our students and the coming generations are interested in, to discover what non-professional readers are actually reading, watching and enjoying, and to ask ourselves why there should often be such a gap between the values espoused within academia and those outside it. We need only think about what has happened in Britain in the last few years, with the Brexit referendum and the general election of December 2019, to see that great gaps have been exposed between the ideas circulating in our university world and other parts of the population. During the run up to the Brexit referendum I did not encounter one single colleague who was not in favour of remaining in Europe, nor a single neighbour who was not in favour of leaving. How such cultural and ideological gaps could become so wide is an important question to ask, and as intellectuals, part of what we should be doing is not only trying to understand why such gaps have come into being, but also looking for ways to bridge them.

There are some hopeful signs of positive changes. Greater global recognition of climate change is starting to be reflected in literary studies more generally, with scholars like Michael Cronin expanding that work into translation studies and Robert Macfarlane reaching out to a wide readership with his books on the need to fight to conserve both the natural environment and the language that is used to talk about that environment. There seems to be a renewed interest in nature poetry too, and last November Simon Armitage announced the creation of the Laurel Prize for the best collection of nature poetry. Poets like Wordsworth and Leopardi are undergoing a kind of revival, and through translation we increasingly have access to the work of great ancient masters such as Du Fu and Wang Wei. Perhaps, in this period of enforced contemplation, we might be better able to acknowledge the relationship between writing and the environment and so start to move towards a new kind of planetarity. And as we start to cope with the aftermath of this crisis, to allow time for the scars left by the coronavirus to heal I wonder whether it might be  possible that we could move towards a new kind of literary study, one where we rediscover the continued importance of the ploughshare and the knitting needle in this technological age.

I was on sabbatical when the virus arrived, so already in quarantine of a kind – an innocent kind – concentrating on the piece of work I’d promised myself to finish before going back to work in the Fall. Since March that seclusion has been surrounded by the global and distinctly less innocent kind of quarantine: there are days when I feel I’ve become a Russian Doll, and my centre is a tiny replica of myself with nothing inside. Although it’s easier for me than most:  I have a job and a house, I’m used to spending large amounts of time alone, and I don’t have young children who need to be entertained, or family clamouring at a tantalisingly close distance. Still, we suffer each alone – or as Larkin said, striking a more secular note: ‘Mine is happening to me’ – and while my lucky life is less depleted than most, it still feels like a poor imitation of itself.
          What to do, that’s the question. Not what to do about getting through the days – that’s comparatively easy (and, as it turns out, days whizz past; nothing obviously comes very easily of nothing). But what to do when this plague passes? What lessons have we learned, individually and in a larger way?  The answers are endless and endlessly complicated, or feel so in Baltimore where I live. Even at the best of times Baltimore is an unusually complicated and, in many ways, a very unhappy place. Poor, with a very high unemployment rate; grotesquely unequal; very violent and corrupt; and socially paralysed. The public transport is lousy, and for good and for ill, especially for ill, people tend to stay where they find themselves. In other words, the city already practises multiple forms of social distancing of the most reprehensible and tragic kind. As I write this, the food banks in the most run-down districts are having to deal with unprecedented demand, and are running out of money.
          So that’s one obvious lesson for the future: pay better attention to the infrastructural things, America: allow for greater mobility, and then make sure that this mobility brings greater justice, more equality and less violence. We hardly needed the death of thousands of people to make the point, but now it stands clearer than ever. Unignorably clear, one would like to think. But what can an individual do to boost this betterment? Vote for a progressive government when the time comes. And meanwhile volunteer: there’s a heroic amount of that happening here already. But also think about how to make a practical contribution of their own, that derives from their special interests and qualifications. A sixty-something university professor such as myself, stuck for most of his day in front of a screen or in a classroom, might seem short of options. And the one option I have taken, which is to teach a course about poetry in translation to my graduate students (by some means or other) in the Fall, may seem very small beer. But at least it’ll mean keeping the faith with what I hope is the momentum of the time. We live in one world, and even before the virus arrived that world was burning. If the generations after mine are going to have any chance of saving it, they’d better know each other’s languages, and learn the ways that poetry can teach us to hear other’s hearts beating.



          La littérature est un réservoir de discours. On y retrouve la mémoire parcellaire, composite, déformée et reformée des événements qui marquèrent l’histoire de l’humanité. Plus exactement : grâce à la littérature, tout événement nous parvient sous les espèces d’un discours qu’il nous appartient de déchiffrer et d’interpréter et dont le fait historique lui-même ne peut qu’avec peine s’isoler comme une réalité entièrement objectivable. C’est pourquoi, si les épidémies appartiennent à l’expérience universelle et immémoriale, si elles occupent à ce titre une place non négligeable dans les textes littéraires, cette place elle-même appelle notre interrogation et notre interprétation. Elle dit quelque chose des modalités sous lesquelles l’humanité tente de faire face à l’épreuve. Ainsi la littérature peut-elle éclairer notre propre rapport à l’épidémie actuelle.
          Certes, il y a épidémie et épidémie. Toutes n’ont pas une fortune littéraire identique, si tant est qu’elles laissent dans les textes la moindre trace. La peste, le choléra, la lèpre, l’ergotisme, la syphilis, la rougeole, la tuberculose, la grippe, le sida, pour ne citer que ces quelques maladies si diverses par leur mode de contamination, leurs symptômes, leur évolution et leur létalité, déterminent des expériences individuelles et sociales radicalement différentes et engagent la littérature de façon non moins diverse. Il arrive à la syphilis de se manifester dans l’œuvre à l’insu même de l’auteur atteint par la maladie, non pas comme thème mais, de façon formelle et symptomatique, comme une force de destructuration du discours : les cas de Nietzsche, Maupassant ou Pierre Louÿs viennent spontanément à l’esprit. Le sida, comme la lèpre à certains égards, eut un effet de segmentation sociale, de création de communauté, où les œuvres littéraires jouèrent souvent un rôle fédérateur. Certaines maladies interviennent dans la littérature en priorité par le biais de destins individuels : qu’on songe à la scarlatine dans Les Quatre Filles du docteur March (1868) de Louisa May Alcott ou à la tuberculose dans La Dame aux camélias (1848) d’Alexandre Dumas fils (la vertu socialisante de la tuberculose a cependant une fonction non négligeable dans le sanatorium de La Montagne magique de Thomas Mann en 1924).
          Les pandémies, quant à elles, ont ceci de particulier qu’elles font de la collectivité humaine leur victime. Elles atteignent l’homme dans sa capacité à faire société ; elles révèlent sa nature d’animal social en faisant de celle-ci à la fois la vectrice de la catastrophe et la source sinon d’un éventuel salut, du moins d’une consolation et d’un allégement des souffrances. Elles érigent l’humanité en problème. Par le seul fait de mettre en péril l’existence de la collectivité, elles constituent la société, voire le genre humain en sujet du discours, sinon en personnage littéraire. Car si le personnage est celui dont on peut raconter non seulement la vie, mais aussi la fin, alors la menace de la mort suffit à créer un effet de personnage.
          Il n’est pas anodin sans doute que la littérature occidentale, du moins son plus ancien monument conservé, l’Iliade, débute par une épidémie : celle qui ravage le camp des Achéens durant la guerre de Troie. Cette peste (moins dans sa stricte définition médicale qu’au sens générique d’épidémie mortelle et fulgurante), qui menace d’anéantir l’armée et avec elle les efforts de dix années de combat, est attribuée au dieu Apollon décochant ses flèches sur les guerriers, qui tombent les uns après les autres. Une action à distance, donc, alors que la maladie – nous ne le savons que trop – se propage par contact. Les assauts de l’archer divin permettent de rendre compte, selon les cadres de pensée de la Grèce archaïque, de l’inconcevable rapidité de la diffusion de la maladie. La croissance exponentielle perçue comme épiphanie divine : on voit que la description de l’épidémie exprime une certaine vision du monde, remplit une certaine fonction idéologique.
          On peut ainsi distinguer dans la littérature quatre types de discours sur les épidémies, quatre grandes fonctions qu’on leur fait jouer et dont il est aisé de trouver des équivalents dans les discours actuels sur le Covid-19.
          Il y a d’abord les textes qui considèrent l’épidémie comme un simple élément documentaire, un objet de curiosité humaine, historique et intellectuelle, qu’il convient de décrire avec la plus grande précision. Ainsi de Thucydide au livre II de La Guerre du Péloponnèse ou de Boccace relatant au début du Décaméron les ravages de la grande peste noire de 1348 à Florence. Le cas de Daniel Defoe est intéressant : alors qu’on s’inquiète en Angleterre de la peste qui sévit en Provence en 1720, l’écrivain entreprend de rassembler les documents et les témoignages d’une autre peste, celle de 1665 à Londres, et en compose son Journal de l’année de la peste (1722). Œuvre donc, vraiment, de journaliste et d’historien, dont les leçons éveillent aujourd’hui de curieux échos : on y lit, par exemple, qu’afin d’éviter toute contamination on payait les commerçants en jetant les pièces de monnaie dans un baquet de vinaigre ou que les clientes étaient invitées à récupérer elles-mêmes leur marchandise sur le croc du boucher – invention, en quelque sorte, du paiement sans contact et du drive.
          Vient ensuite une deuxième catégorie de textes : ceux qui font de l’épidémie le signe ou le symptôme d’un désordre cosmique, religieux ou social. Il suffit alors en principe de rétablir l’ordre initial pour arrêter le fléau. Tel est le cas de l’Iliade, lorsque Apollon punit les Achéens d’avoir touché à la fille de son prêtre ; d’Œdipe roi de Sophocle, où la peste dévastant Thèbes trahit l’inceste et le parricide commis par le souverain ; ou du livre biblique de l’Exode, quand Dieu décime les troupeaux des Égyptiens et leur envoie une épidémie d’ulcères pour les forcer à libérer le peuple hébreu. Dans la mesure où elle déclenche la quête d’un coupable, l’épidémie fournit au roman policier un ingrédient sans pareil : dans Pars vite et reviens tard (2001), Fred Vargas fait de la résurgence de la peste à Paris au XXIe siècle la révélatrice d’injustices oubliées. Difficile de ne pas songer, dans une veine analogue, aux discours reliant l’épidémie actuelle aux désordres environnementaux d’origine humaine ou aux politiques déficientes – cela dit sans préjudice de la pertinence de telles analyses.
          D’autres textes insistent sur le caractère inéluctable de l’épidémie, relevant d’un ordre naturel du monde contre lequel il serait vain de se rebeller – comme dans la nouvelle d’Edgar Allan Poe, Le Masque de la mort rouge (1842). La description du fléau vient alors exorciser l’angoisse latente de la modernité. L’épidémie devient le motif privilégié de romans d’anticipation relatant la fin de la civilisation, sinon de l’humanité, chez Mary Shelley (Le Dernier Homme, 1826) ou Jack London (La Peste écarlate, 1912). Dans certains de ces récits appartenant à la littérature anglo-américaine, la terreur provoquée par l’épidémie cache mal une autre terreur, historique celle-là, liée à la Révolution française, dont la maladie ne serait que la transposition biologique. De façon paradoxale, c’est à cette veine fataliste et apocalyptique que se rattache la fameuse description par Lucrèce de la peste à Athènes, sur laquelle se clôt, intentionnellement ou non, son grand poème épicurien et matérialiste : appel à la résignation devant un fléau ressortissant à l’ordre de la nature.
          Enfin, dans un dernier ensemble de textes, l’épidémie sert à la mise à nu morale et symbolique de l’humanité, révélatrice des vices et vertus des individus, des travers et des forces de la société, avec ses héros et ses salauds. La Peste (1947) d’Albert Camus désigne par une évidente allégorie toute crise humaine et sociale majeure, et en premier lieu l’Occupation. L’événement de la Seconde Guerre mondiale n’est étranger ni au choléra décrit par Jean Giono dans Le Hussard sur le toit (1951) ni au Typhus (1943) de Jean-Paul Sartre, scénario tourné plus tard par Yves Allégret sous le titre Les Orgueilleux (1953) avec Michèle Morgan et Gérard Philipe. C’était la voie déjà suivie trois siècles plus tôt par Jean de La Fontaine dans Les Animaux malades de la peste (1678), charge cinglante contre le mécanisme du bouc émissaire et contre l’interprétation sémiologique de l’épidémie, autrement dit contre les discours que nous venons de regouper dans la deuxième catégorie. Le célèbre incipit du poème (« Un mal qui répand la terreur, / Mal que le Ciel en sa fureur / Inventa pour punir les crimes de la terre »), référence appuyée à la rhétorique religieuse dominante, se révèle en réalité foncièrement ironique, tant il est contredit par la conclusion : que vaut en effet l’action divine si elle accroît l’injustice et si, loin de corriger la nature humaine, elle en exacerbe les défauts ? L’épidémie a partie liée avec la fable : elle est la lunette allégorique et philosophique par laquelle le moraliste pourra mieux observer l’humanité.
          Voilà donc quatre types de discours – documentaire, sémiologique, eschatologique, moral – auxquels se laissent aisément rattacher, de façon pure ou mixte, les discours contemporains sur l’épidémie de Covid-19. Une telle typologie, riche d’une si longue tradition, ne suffit ni à exténuer la valeur des discours que nous entendons en ce moment ni à préjuger de leur pertinence, car ce qui était vrai ou faux, opportun ou nuisible hier en telles circonstances données ne l’est plus nécessairement aujourd’hui. Mais elle invite à prendre une certaine distance face aux arguments qui nous sont présentés et à les replacer dans une perspective historique et idéologique. C’est une des leçons que peut offrir la littérature.

“What does it mean to cogitate in gated communities,” asks the BCLA, “to think and to write in enforced isolation?” It is a good question though by no means new. With the phrase “gated communities” the BCLA must mean to remind us of the social inequalities that have marked the progress of this disease, particularly in countries without a comprehensive system of health care. Gated communities are designed to keep out “undesirables”—the poor, the foreign, the dangerous. Their creation symbolizes the privatization of public space that English-speaking countries have accelerated since Thatcher and Reagan. Obviously that is one of the causes for our inability, in the United States, to counter or even to take stock of the covid-19 pandemic.

But the allusion or metaphor trips over its own tail. What is the body but a gated community? When we wash our hands, put on masks, keep the prescribed distance while waiting in line, and when our skins, mucous membranes, and antibodies interrogate the substances constantly streaming into us from outside, what are we doing but maintaining a desired degree of isolation? Maintaining a self, a necessary precondition to any possible cogitation, requires robust boundaries. So is there good isolation and bad? How would we make that distinction without falling into hypocrisy (one rule for me, another rule for thee)?

The remedy to the threatened self-undermining of the conceit is to refuse the temptations of metaphor. Let’s not seize on the opportunity, as many distinguished thinkers and writers have done in the past weeks, of making the coronavirus a symbol of our present condition, a symptom of the strife of good and evil, of Man and Nature, of Capitalism and Socialism. Boundaries in general are without moral implications. We can in good conscience be interested in maintaining certain boundaries—those of the human envelope containing ourselves, our neighbours, or the nurses, doctors and cleaners without whose efforts our own chances of maintaining selfhood are diminished—and try to dissolve others, boundaries of nationality or entitlement for example. They are not the same.

The wish to draw a moral from disaster is powerful. When the Roman Empire was overrun and sacked, some blamed it on abandoning the old tutelary gods for Christianity, and Saint Augustine countered (in The City of God) that it would have gone much worse were it not for Christianity. I rate that match as a draw. When eminent philosophers see in confinement and quarantine the shadow of the concentration camps, the looming threat of totalitarian “biopolitics,” or the long arm of eugenics reaching out from the past to decide who will live and who will die, I think we must answer these gestures of moral panic with questions that differentiate scales and outcomes.[1] If confinement is a “state of emergency,” does it serve or not to forestall worse “states of emergency” in hospital wards and the bodies of sick people? Rationing of the goods that make the difference between life and death shocks the conscience, but if there are to be shortages (and let’s do what we can to ensure there are not), shouldn’t we deal with them as fairly and justly as we are able? Our philosophers are dealing with the new by subjecting it to moral reflexes coming from old stockpiles, assimilating Bergamo to Buchenwald and Wuhan to the Gulag, when a proper response would start from the most pressing danger.

The pressing danger in this country, at least for those of us who are not currently intubated, is on show in the evening news: strutting ignorance, lurching vindictively from one life-endangering decision to another, and “public servants” announcing that the stock market is more important to them than the lives of an arbitrary number of their countrymen. Against this background, I experience my house and my books as a place of peace and order. It’s a scene familiar from many of the great books of the tradition: Boethius, in his prison cell in Pavia, while waiting to be executed for his defense of the Senate against Theodoric the Ostrogoth, fantasizing dialogues in prose and verse with Dame Philosophy, his consolation; Boccaccio’s country retreat where a number of Italians, lacking television, while away the time with stories; Victor Klemperer obstinately recording the violence done to the German language in his notebooks while worse violence was being done outside them. Surely this is what humanistic education is for: it equips you to make hermitages of the mind when the rest of the world is going to the dogs. On the other hand, there’s no moral authority in a wall per se: Sade’s Hundred Days of Sodom and Pasolini’s Salò are “gated community” stories enclosing such horror that they make the outside world look like the domain of peace and mutual respect.

Not everyone has a house; not everyone has books or the desire to read them. I am lucky. But the point of teaching, I think, is to share the luck. Just now I am teaching the great Chinese novel Shitou ji (Story of the Stone, ca. 1750) in its nineteenth-century commented editions. The novel is itself a story of enclosure. Hoping to keep their adolescent children safe and unspotted from the world, a family of Qing-dynasty aristocrats has built for them an immense walled garden. Of course the garden, while distinct from the outer world, depends on it in countless ways, not least for the steady tramp of servants going in and out to till, clean, and cook. And inevitably the walled garden subsides into a condition of undifferentiation from the world outside. Boundary-violating goings-on mount up until finally the police break in and the dream is over. The import of the garden metaphor can be situated at various scales: does it stand for innocence, for culture, for the superstructure in its relation to the base, for the empire of China (the “Flowering Middle” in its self-designation)? My students and I are unable to meet in person, but we share, through electronic means, our notes and translations of passages. In just this way the nineteenth-century commenters on this enigmatic work, who never met, shared their analyses and fantasies through the medium of print. Each of us—twenty or so all told—builds a garden from the words of the novel and shares its produce across the fences of our usernames and file systems.

[1] See Giorgio Agamben, “L’invenzione di un’epidemia,” Quodlibet, February 26, 2020, available at; Slavoj Žižek, “Is Barbarism With a Human Face Our Fate?,” Critical Inquiry, March 18, 2020, available at

Dans ce qui nous arrive tout est nouveau, et pourtant rien n’est inconnu. Surreprésentée dans toutes les formes de fiction contemporaines, notamment au cinéma, dans les séries et dans les jeux vidéo, la pandémie comme résultat de la contagion ne doit rien au hasard. Documentée par les premiers historiens grecs, racontée par les chroniqueurs, les historiens et nouvellistes italiens, anglais et français du XIVe au XVIIIe siècle, décrite par la biologie moderne depuis le XVIIIe siècle, scénarisée par les romanciers au XXe siècle, modélisée par les jeux et développée par les fictions sérielles, la logique « virale » propre à l’épidémie était omniprésente sur tous les supports culturels existants en ce début du XXIe.
    L’invraisemblance de ce qui est arrivé (comment se fait-il que, de tous les scénarios possibles dont la réalisation aurait été plus attendue, celui-ci ait été retenu par la réalité ?) côtoie donc dans la presse le sentiment que c’est bien cela, pourtant, qui devait arriver. De là l’omniprésence dans la presse d’outre-Atlantique comme en Europe des références amères ou entendues au « cygne noir » de Nicholas Nassim Taleb, symbole post-moderne de l’occurrence a priori improbable, inévitable a posteriori. De là aussi, plus discrètement sans doute, le rapprochement que l’on peut faire entre le mécanisme bien décrit par Clément Rosset pour l’illusion oraculaire, mais qui serait caractéristique de notre perception erronée de la réalité en général. Notre surprise devant le surgissement de l’événement inattendu vient de l’impression qu’il prendrait en arrivant la place d’un autre événement — ce « double du réel » que l’on ne saurait nommer ni décrire, parce qu’il n’existait pas avant et n’existera jamais, mais qui aurait dû se produire en ce lieu, et à ce moment.
     Quelle place donc, dans cette crise de la prévision et de la prévisibilité, pour la fiction, à l’heure où les théâtres sont à nouveau fermés pour cause de peste comme ceux de Londres au temps de Shakespeare? Romans, films, séries et jeux vidéo occupent certes toujours le terrain de la pandémie. Foldit, serious game en ligne appuyé sur le travail de chercheurs de l’université de Washington, propose même aux joueurs d’entrer dans la course mondiale au vaccin en créant sous forme de puzzle en 3D une protéine capable de se coller au récepteur du SRAS-Cov-2, afin de bloquer la capacité du virus à infecter son hôte.[1] La fiction est partout, qu’on la perçoive comme telle ou non, même si les fictions post-post-modernes de la pandémie elles-mêmes ont pu pendant quelques semaines sembler dépassées par la sinistre capacité d’invention du réel. Faut-il donc continuer à déplorer, comme nombre de critiques le font depuis vingt ans, la perte du pouvoir de la littérature en particulier à représenter le monde, à rendre prévisible son évolution — et donc à entraîner une modification des comportements ? On peut en douter, à voir par ailleurs l’importance des constructions nées de l’imaginaire dans la façon dont les citoyens confinés de l’Asie aux Etats-Unis et à l’Europe, à l’image des héros-conteurs du Décaméron réinventant le monde en temps de peste, réagissent à l’évolution de la situation. Les appels se multiplient à redonner d’urgence à l’imagination ses droits, pour éviter que le monde d’après ne ressemble irréparablement au monde d’avant.
     Encore faudrait-il pour cela que les scénarios fabriqués par la fiction soient à nouveau capables de rendre compte — sans doute autrement qu’ils ne le faisaient jusqu’ici — de leur efficacité, c’est-à-dire de leur capacité à servir de modèles pour une appréhension du réel. De fait, dans l’accélération brutale de la survenue des événements à laquelle on assiste depuis quelques mois, c’est peut-être le rapport compliqué de la fiction au temps qui se retrouve au centre de ses (futures nouvelles) fonctions[2].
Peut-elle, dans le double rapport qu’elle entretient avec le passé d’un côté, et le futur de l’autre, mesurer ou baliser le passage d’un état de choses à un autre, jamais advenu ? D’un côté en effet, à l’image du récit historique, la fiction représente : elle fonde sur les fragments d’expériences passées, diversement recomposés, dotés de valeurs nouvelles et de nouvelles significations sa prétention à éclairer le présent et l’avenir. C’est pour cela que ses produits semblent si vite dépassés, surtout ceux qui se donnent pour but de peindre un avenir (proche ou non) précisément daté et situé. D’un autre côté, et à l’image cette fois des modèles mathématiques calculant des probabilités, la fiction présente des mondes. Les processus de représentation imaginaire sont responsables de la gestion du sens et surtout des valeurs investies dans les systèmes projetés ; ce sont eux qui permettent d’articuler entre eux des jeux de données humainement hétérogènes, et d’évaluer par l’expérience virtuelle qu’ils en proposent le monde que ces modèles pourraient construire. Comment ne pas penser à l’erreur d’évaluation qui a fait que le risque — c’est-à-dire les conséquences concrètes de la réalisation d’une possibilité parmi d’autres— de survenue de la pandémie a été à ce point mésestimé ? Et à l’impossible impératif d’équilibrage qui en a résulté entre deux types de valeurs entièrement hétérogènes : le coût humain direct (nombre de morts) et indirect (pertes économiques) des mesures prises face à la contagion. Seul le passage par la construction des scénarios complets, c’est-à-dire des images du monde humain obtenu dans chaque cas, pouvait révéler l’ampleur des conséquences de chacune des possibilités envisagées.
     Mais ce qui limite la capacité des mondes sinon complets, du moins habitables créés par la fiction à éclairer les choix faits dans l’ordre du réel, c’est précisément la sur-sémantisation qui a caractérisé jusqu’ici les pandémies imaginaires. Toutes les épidémies représentées en fiction, des Fiancés de Manzoni (1828-1842) au Hussard sur le toit de Giono (1951), et de 28 jours plus tard (Boyle, 2002) à Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011), tirent leur intérêt de la sur-détermination axiologique ou esthétique de la maladie choisie. Qui aurait été choisir un rhume dans le rôle du virus mettant à l’arrêt la machine économique mondiale ?
     En 1850, une réaction comparable contre l’insignifiance de l’extraordinaire et de l’idéel en art avait poussé peintres, philosophes et écrivains vers l’invention du réalisme, en pleine révolution industrielle. Mais cette promotion d’une dignité épistémologique du banal et du quotidien, enfin appelé à devenir objet d’art en même temps qu’objet de science, reposait sur une confiance alors largement partagée dans le progrès scientifique, dans sa capacité à livrer un jour le secret de chacun des aspects de notre rapport au monde. Cette confiance n’a pas survécu à l’ère post-moderne, puis post-post-moderne, qui a vu les sociétés désormais industrialisées mettre gravement en danger l’avenir de leur milieu d’existence – sans même assurer pour autant à l’espèce humaine elle-même la sécurité provisoire (alimentaire, physiologique, génétique) qui devait être le prix de cette destruction.
     La croyance dans la stabilité du réel et dans la capacité d’un discours unique de la science à le représenter exactement avait déjà entraîné avec elle la fin des programmes fictionnels réalistes et naturalistes, en peinture comme en littérature. On pourrait assister aujourd’hui à un renoncement équivalent aux genres fictionnels néo-réalistes (nouveau journalisme, par exemple), qui entraînerait l’abandon de la littérature-monde des années post-2001 au profit d’une démultiplication de micro-récits, à la fois singuliers et tous semblables d’un recentrement sur un rapport plus immédiat à soi et au monde, moins ambitieux mais aussi moins incertain, favorisé par l’expérience du confinement 2020.
     Quant à la fiction d’anticipation, que devient-elle, confrontée à une crise aussi majeure de la capacité des discours scientifiques à prévoir l’état suivant, immédiat, du monde à l’échelle humaine ? La science-fiction développait en mondes pseudo-complets les vertigineux modèles induits par la relativité universelle ou la science des systèmes —mais pour le bénéfice de spectateurs rassemblés dans des cinémas de quartier à des horaires eux-mêmes bien prévisibles, ou lisant dans des rames de métro installées dans une réalité stable et (densément) partagée. Si elle ne peut plus se fier aux jeux de données à partir desquels on pouvait jusqu’ici extrapoler les mondes à venir, deux options restent ouvertes. La première serait d’entamer vraiment, comme le proposait Quentin Meillassoux en 2013 l’exploration fictionnelle des « mondes hors-science »[3], jusqu’ici sous-exploitée par la littérature, et fondée sur une remise en cause radicale du principe de causalité qui structure le nôtre. Dans le seul exemple qu’en présentait le philosophe, celui du roman Ravage de René Barjavel (1943) l’audace métaphysique et écologique de la description d’un univers sans électricité est évidemment compensée par un refus bien conservateur de l’idée même du progrès induit par la science dans le monde — et non de tel ou tel de ses résultats.
     L’autre solution, plus stimulante, consisterait à tracer des chemins reliant les nouveaux aux anciens réalismes, articulant la représentation à la projection des mondes, et la perception individuelle des choses à une appréhension globale de ce qui arrive à tous, et de la façon dont cela nous arrive. La pandémie est en elle-même globale, et le rétrécissement du temps dans lequel elle survient donne à tous une chance de penser cette globalité, y compris lorsqu’elle s’est traduite pour plusieurs milliards de Terriens par un retrait momentané du rapport direct au monde et aux autres, et par une suspension des modes ordinaires de prévision et d’investissement dans l’avenir. A l’heure de reconnecter différemment ces fils, la fiction, faiseuse de mondes, pourra sans doute proposer à nouveau ses services.                   

[1] Le niveau dédié au Covid-19 a été implémenté dès le 27 février 2020.

[2] Voir aussi là-dessus AD « L’œuvre, la peur et le temps. Pour une saisie du risque par la littérature »

[3] Quentin Meillassoux, Métaphysique et fiction des mondes hors-science, suivi de La Boule de billard d’Isaac Asimov, Paris, Aux Forges de Vulcain, 2013, 108 p

I will not be travelling to Saint Malo this coming Whitsun weekend.  Étonnants Voyageurs – due to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary in early June 2020 – is yet another casualty of the coronavirus. An event now associated primarily with the quest for une littérature-monde en français, the festival was originally an annual gathering of the ‘grandchildren of Stevenson and Conrad’, seeking out what was initially dubbed une littérature voyageuse.

Étonnants Voyageurs was founded by Michel Le Bris, former Maoist turned nouveau philosophe, much of whose career has been devoted to challenging a perceived asphyxiation of contemporary French-language literature and to exploring ways of breathing new life and creativity into it. In a first movement, predating the turn to world-literature, this activity involved an engagement with travel writing, in the form of neglected earlier texts (ranging from Victor Segalen to Ella Maillart) as well as established and emerging contemporary voices (notably Nicolas Bouvier, Jacques Lacarrière, Kenneth White, Jean-Luc Coatalem…). The formation of a guild identity – male, white, European, with a tendency towards imperialist nostalgia – attracted robust critique, as did the romanticization, even fetishization of what Le Bris dubbed ‘le grand dehors’. The leading sociologist and semiologist of travel Jean-Didier Urbain countered this myth of the great outdoors, offering as it does spaces for solipsistic escapism, with alternative travel practices, more katabatic and urban, focused not on expansiveness but on confinement.

To Le Bris’s agoraphilia, Urbain responded with claustrophilia, i.e., an interest in vertical journeys, in burrowing down into the everyday, in achieving the forms of microspection that would later be analysed so eloquently by scholars such as Michael Cronin. These earlier debates have resonated in recent weeks with my own reflections on travel in our moment of generalized confinement and self-isolation. With even the most modest itineraries now discouraged (or at least strictly limited), we have witnessed radical changes to travel and mobility: a desire for apparently unfettered physical movement has been sublimated into various forms of vicarious travel. Navigating cyberspace, users of social media have re-created and re-lived past journeys, constructed present ones in virtual form, and imagined their possible future routes. Travel writing and travel documentaries have become a privileged proxy space to fulfil a seemingly irrepressible desire to be homo viator, to ‘frotter et limer sa cervelle contre celle d’aultruy’.

There is a need now to understand more clearly the cognitive function of the travelogue as a generator of what narratologists call storyworlds, constructed narrative spaces into which we are drawn as readers or viewers and where alternative modes of travel are still possible. The now burgeoning field of studies in travel writing has encouraged us, over the past three decades or so, to reflect on the extent to which the virtual or the vicarious provides access to other physical worlds, to consider how these modes might function anthropologically as windows on elsewhere or serve instead as mirrors in which we see reflections of our own flaws, taboos and desires. These are questions that take on a renewed urgency in an age of confinement, when the functions of travel narratives are intensified and increasingly applied to previously unimagined contexts.

Yet we might argue that these links between travel writing and confinement have always been apparent, and are not limited to our restricted circumstances as readers. The poetics of the journey have always depended on an interplay of spontaneous notation in the field and retrospective narration on return. It is the latter that links to the forms of sessility and necessary isolation that the travel writer often finds deeply frustrating. The Swiss traveller Ella Maillart repeatedly describes in her diaries and correspondence her loathing of being stuck at a desk while she produces the next travelogue without which she would be able to fund her future journeys. And there are cases where the account of the journey is itself a direct response to confinement. W.G. Sebald, at the opening of The Rings of Saturn, describes being ‘taken into hospitality in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility’, a year to the day after the walking journey through Suffolk he is about to recount. His contact with the outside world is limited to ‘the colourless patch of sky framed in the window’, a grainy photograph of which is included in the text and then woven into the palimpsest of memoryscapes that form the substance of his travelogue. This limitation of the world to what can be seen through a pane of glass resonates, in Sebald’s overactive imagination, with Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, waking ‘transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin’ and condemned to ‘look[ing] out the window at the dull weather’ – but also, as the author of The Rings of Saturn adds: ‘no longer remembering (so Kafka’s narrative goes) the sense of liberation that gazing out of the window had formerly given him’.

With confinement comes metamorphosis, transformations whose nature and extent cannot yet be easily predicted. But such interplay between introversion and extroversion, between seclusion and openness, is also embedded in the journey itself. The work of Nicolas Bouvier makes this amply clear. The Sri Lanka of Le Poisson-Scorpion is recounted by an exhausted, sick narrator for whom the island space is at once one of confinement and expansiveness. Observation of the microscopic detail of the everyday – not least the insects that inhabit Bouvier’s accommodation – leads to hallucinatory journeys in which the experience of geographical distance is complemented by the spectral return of figures from the past. Le Poisson-Scorpion might be read as an extreme form of vertical travel, the type of descent into the detail of place to which Urbain alluded by coining the term claustrophobia. Eschewing the journey’s customary focus on horizontality and expansiveness, the vertical traveller caresses, as Nabokov suggested all writers should, the ‘divine detail’ of the proximate and the everyday. It is perhaps no surprise that Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre has, in recent weeks, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as, deprived of the possibility of physical travel, many have been tempted to become room travellers in our own right. The models for such practices in microscopic travel writing are well established, ranging from Georges Perec’s ludic engagement with the endotic in texts such as Espèces d’espaces to the deep topography of the ‘London Perambulator’ Nick Papadimitriou in a work such as Scarp. In ‘The Parish and the Universe’, the great poet of the Irish everyday Patrick Kavanagh suggests that: ‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience, it is depth that counts, not width.’ Is this the future of travel writing in an age of confinement? A narrowing of focus and accompanying expansion of possibilities that allows us to reconfigure the fundamentals of space and time?

The travelogue writing is a genre that has undergone constant reinvention, is a form that has always foretold the loss of diversity whilst recalibrating the ways we define elsewhere. I have long been wary of the ethics of metaphorizing confinement: these modes of claustrophiliac travel are, of course, nothing new to those rendered physically immobile by disability, imprisonment or other forms of confinement, reliant as a result on the imaginative possibilities of microspection in order to re-enchant or transcend the everyday. It is such practices, however, that remind us that travel writing is not only a means of compensating for our nostalgia for elsewhere, but also a way of seeking new forms of accommodation with the here and now.

The BCLA call for entries stared at me for a few hours before I could think of how to respond to it. I think it is because, initially, I did not feel included in it. As a parent, my ability to write is currently in competition with looking after my children. So instead of basing my reflections on books I cannot read, I decided instead, as has anyway become my habit lately, to base those observations on life and its intersection with books, or our literary imagination, since reading is decidedly the product of an alchemy between the two.

As I now can, I watch the children play a lot. As the children play, I see our own play as adults reflected in it. In our rituals (cooking, washing, getting dressed, brushing our hair) we reinvent reality every day to fit our idea of what normal life should be. In so doing, we differentiate between day and night, today and tomorrow. In the morning, we eat porridge to sustain us until lunchtime, even though porridge is becoming too sustaining a meal for the little exercise we do. Just this afternoon, the children play-acted at going to dance class, or visiting the ice-cream shop. I watched them meticulously replace the current hurdles of reality preventing them from doing something they love with negotiable ones: if you eat your peas now, you will be allowed a trip to the ice-cream shop afterwards. The more time passes, the more this play acting feels as if it has been shelved by the children on the same plane as, say: going to the moon, or driving across the sea on the back of a tortoise.

We play, we imagine, and we worry, and these are our main activities. In the midst of play, our happiness as a family sometimes seems to glow unreasonably in the face of the illness and death that surrounds us. One minute I want to revel in it, the next I want to temper it with a superstitious spell, as if it might attract its opposite (illness, financial woes, etc…). Then, guilt sets in.

Like Sleeping Beauty, we sometimes would like to fall asleep, for a long time, and wake up when the world, a world worth living for, is back on again.

We are interrupted, and, game after game, story after story, we resist this interruption.

I have heard many people claim they are unable to read during lockdown. I have a theory – my theory, is not that people are unable to read because of outside pressure, or because their stress levels prevents them from concentrating. I think that they are unable to read because fiction no longer affirms reality as they know it. Often, literature comforts our sense of reality which, uncomfortably now, seems more and more foreign to us since lockdown and social isolation have become the norm. Reading fiction forces us to admit this: these stories belong to an outside which now feels unknowable, unreasonable, un-seeable. It tells us very little about our outside, of which we now have little knowledge, and very little imaginary. In some ways, it reminds me of the slight unease I felt as a child in rural France when reading literature that reflected distinct class-experiences as if they were universal. Reading about people surrounded by culture and theatre and secondary homes did not always feel like an opening onto the outside world, but instead reflected painfully on the kind of social confinement that I and many others experienced.

Although, for the same practical and psychological reasons as many, I cannot read at leisure, I have nevertheless had what I would call “interesting reading experiments” since the lockdown started.

The first book I turned to during the lockdown has been Dante’s Divine Comedy. I am ashamed to say that I used Dante medicinally, after waking up one night in sweat and tears following what seemed to have been a panic attack. I initially thought a meditation podcast would help, but the contrast between the calm voice of the podcaster and my own anxiety only seemed to trigger further distress. I needed something stronger, something that was the beverage equivalent of a strong vodka.

My choice of the Divine Comedy helped more than I had anticipated. Upon reaching the stage where the first-person narrator meets Virgil, I had this epiphany: Dante too was having a panic attack, and he had decided to turn to Virgil for help. Why else would Dante write:

You see the beast that made me turn aside;

Help me, o famous sage, to stand against her,

For she has made my pulses shudder.


My uncontrollable anxiety turned into irrepressible laughter, and I was well again.

Later, I found that I was envious of Mrs Dalloway’s leisurely trips to buy flowers in ways that made me see her dedication to everyday life in a new light. I also ached to see Eugene Atget’s photographs again – those I had seen in an exhibition at the Rotterdam photography museums a few years ago. I had hoped (and discovered I was right to hope) that seeing his photographs of the empty streets of Paris again would put me in touch with the emptiness of the world I could not see.

I am not ready to write in much detail about these renewed encounters with works I have known for so long. But for now, I have come to the conclusion that if our relationship with reading should be redefined, it should not be through the question: what can literature teach us about this lockdown? But rather, what can this lockdown teach us, given the new psychological and material conditions of our lives, about literature, and about reading? I am more and more convinced that the best critics and writers have always been those who posed the question of literature’s relationship to their own crisis, no matter how personal or communal, in this way.



A few weeks after I submitted my PhD thesis, the world went into lockdown. I had written my thesis on wandering, defined in a Kantian sense as ‘purposive without purpose’ (and as opposed to merely walking from A to B). Being told to stop leaving my flat unless I had a specific reason, while working from home and anticipating my online viva, thus felt somewhat ironic. As everything shut, life began to only exist in confinement. The ‘new normal’ meant that I was no longer even able to set out to buy flowers like Mrs. Dalloway (unless perhaps I intended to buy them at the supermarket and had planned to do my weekly grocery shopping there anyway). Nine weeks after the initial lockdown this still hasn’t changed.
          And yet, while shops, libraries, museums, theatres, schools, universities, and pubs closed, one aspect of British culture did remain unchallenged: the right to roam open access land and to access public footpaths. In contrast to some of our European neighbours, the UK government never went so far as to prevent people from exercising outside. On my own rambles I continued to take detours and to go off the beaten track. Whenever I found that ‘Two roads diverged in a wood […] / I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference’. The last line of Frost’s poem nowadays makes me stumble. In the context of Covid-19, it invites a re-reading that seems gruesome, not least given that green spaces have been put under increased pressure in some parts of the country, thus leaving seemingly little room to ‘wander lonely as a cloud’.
          Access to the open countryside has become a luxury. The first time that something similar occurred was during the Industrial Revolution. Rousseau, who found the physical act of walking in nature important for his mental wellbeing, had set the impetus for this development. Building on his promenades, both the literary wanderer and the cultural practice of wandering gradually developed into a symbol of resistance against the increasing speed of modern life. Environmentalism became a concern of the nineteenth century. The early history of countryside rambling seems very relatable today: even in the earliest stages of the pandemic the UK government frequently stressed the psychological need for access to green spaces; and many people will no doubt have felt their moods lifting when we were finally allowed to travel to beauty spots again, able to go on solitary rambles further afield. Going forward I wonder though how many people will actually recognise that their countryside rambles (and memory thereof) can become a tool that enables them to cope with the stresses of the changed working world. How many people are able not only to make sense of our new world but also to increase the pleasure of something seemingly mundane like countryside rambling by relating their experience to that of some of the world’s finest writers? Here is the crux of the matter: engagement with culture not only generates meaning, but it enables us to build cultural capital, which allows us among other things to build resilience.
          Ben’s adaptation of Hölderlin’s question ‘What good are critics in destitute times?’ will remain relevant for some time to come. The destitute times we live in will continue, after all, beyond the moment of the immediate crisis caused by the outbreak of the virus. Cultural criticism was arguably not the first thing that was called for in a global emergency. Many of us thus initially responded by turning inwards; taking the role of the observer or tending to cultural production. There is great value in that, though, and perhaps now is the time to reflect upon this. Between all of us we could no doubt come up with a very long list of general observations, and a separate one for ways in which culture has helped us to come to terms with the pandemic. We ultimately know that there is inherent value in what we do and that our work enables us to navigate culturally through the ‘new normal’. The crisis has added a new layer to our work and to our understanding of the world. As we gradually see restrictions lifted over the summer (and get to know the full impact of the pandemic), we may want to take a moment to take stock of these reflections. After all, it will be our task to think of ways in which our knowledge and understanding of the world can support community building, recovery and resilience. In the destitute times that ensue from this crisis, we will need the cultural critic more than ever.


Earlier this year I had read Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s last major work of fiction (a novella actually) titled Asani Sanket [Distant Thunder] (1943-45) for an academic conference that was cancelled due to the global pandemic. On completing the institutional responsibilities for this last semester (January-May), I decided to re-read the text casually. I discovered in the work based on the 1943 Bengal Famine a short episode describing an act of quarantining a backward village from a rising cholera infection – a result of the famine. The episode had not registered during my earlier reading (sometime in January), but assumed significance only after words like ‘isolation’ and ‘quarantine’ started to feature prominently in media discourse. It enabled me to understand the events narrated in the episode socio-politically, as a strategy adopted by the current Indian government to engage with Covid-19 crisis.
          Asani Sanket narrates the ways in which residents of an idyllic, bountifully utopian imaginary village named Nayagaon, geographically located in the North 24 Pargana District of West Bengal (an Eastern province in India), try to come to terms with the famine during World War II. When Kamdebpur, a village adjacent to Nayagaon, starts recording rising cholera cases, a person from the former requests the male protagonist Gangacharan Chakraborty – a cunning and unscrupulous Brahmin teacher-cum-health expert-cum-priest of Nayagaon, to isolate & quarantine the village. Gangacharan exploits it as an opportunity to gratify his material aspirations. He advocates the expensive measure of awakening kulakundalini (female vital force in a creature as per the scriptures), costing Kamdebpur thirty rupees, and demands that the village meet the expenses of his familial requirements – “ten seers[1] of sunned rice, ten clusters of ripe banana, two-and-half seers of ghee made of cow milk, two-and-half seers of sweetmeats, three scarlet-bordered sarees for three Bhoirabis (a manifestation of Goddess Durga[2]), full sized dhuti-chaador (indigenous apparel comprising of loin cloth and a sheet of cloth draped around the body) for Bhoirab (a manifestation of Lord Shiva[3]), and a copper vessel for the ritual”. However, Gangacharan later informs his wife Ananga that the rituals are not required at all; he would merely follow the steps enumerated in a manual on health and hygiene.
          Gangacharan drew everyone’s attention on the day of the performance. He knew quite well that Kamdebpur, untouched by rationality and modern knowledge, was a thoroughly backward village – an “awj paragaon”. Hence, quarantining needed to look fantastic and magical. He realized that only a spectacular experience would cast a spell on the residents and compel them to be charmed by the elaborately designed performance, failing which he would not be perceived to have succeeded. Consequently, he would not receive due credit or reward for his efforts.
          Three clay pots painted with vermilion were arranged. Four arrows made of palmyra-leaf were tied to each other with the auspicious threads that adorn male Brahmin bodies and buried at the four corners of the ritual site. Dolls made of the wood of gaab[4] trees were massaged with oil, decorated with vermilion and buried at a tripartite junction of the village. Gangacharan overheard the villagers murmuring their appreciation for him and deprecating the other local Brahmin priest, Dinu Bhattacharya; their reverence for him was becoming directly proportional to the absurdity of his demands. Gangacharan then demanded two compact earthen plates and two white sun plant twigs, to everyone’s surprise; one villager tried to reason that since they did not have an idol-maker or potter in Kamdebpur, it was almost impossible to fetch the items. Enraged, Gangacharan fitfully said that the need for these materials in quarantining a village was merely common knowledge. His aim, in short, was to demonstrate to the public how much little information and knowledge they had. He was successful in visibly shaming them – their cheeks had turned red.
          The villagers analyzed the situation logically and decided that considering that Gangacharan was a perfectionist and an expert, his demands should be met. Gangacharan’s performance ended at about two o’ clock in the afternoon, with the awestruck villagers witnessing a host of unknown rituals for the first time in their lives. Once he had sprinkled around the holy water for everyone to be blessed with prayers of peace, Gangacharan announced that only the final task was left. Confounded in disbelief, the villagers looked at each other’s faces – everybody had had a really tough time satisfying Gangacharan’s demands. It was already three o’ clock and they were exhausted. Gangacharan asked for directions to find a Neem tree in the North-Western corner of the village that he had already seen on his way in. The villagers fumbled a bit but pointed out the tree to him on top of which a dhawja (banner) was tied, as per Gangacharan’s directions, by two sturdy young fellows. Once this had been done, Gangacharan emitted a sigh of relief and told the villagers in a convincing tone that since they had spent money on the entire process, it would be only ethical and professional on his part to ensure that there were no loopholes in the entire job. He reiterated that the task of quarantining a village was not merely a matter of words, but a labour-intensive job.
          Overwhelmed with respect and profound admiration at Gangacharan’s words, everyone wondered: “Do not these words truly bear the hallmarks of a Pandit[5]?” The villagers took him to the household of a milkman (belonging to the Goala caste) for food and water, where Gangacharan announced that he would drink only coconut water. He informed the villagers that for a month they were not supposed to use the river water for any purpose. They should not eat any stale or waste food. If flies were found sitting on the surface of the food materials, they should be immediately thrown away. The information was to be spread across Kamdebpur.
          This is how Bandopadhyay describes the entire episode where primacy is given to caste Hindu rituals spectacularly performed by Gangacharan, apparently to fight the disease. Scientific thought regarding the medical-health crisis appears merely as cautionary warnings at the end of the ritualistic process. Scholars hint at some Bengali literatures being invested with the universally popular cultural and sub-cultural beliefs in the clash between good versus evil . However, that may not always be an automatic presence; some form of agency, at least, is necessary. This is demonstrated in Asani Sanket when Gangacharan manipulates the unaware villagers into believing that the cholera bacteria is an evil that has to be warded off by isolating and quarantining the village through symbolic rituals. The scientific resolution of the problem is given cultural, sub-cultural and religious dimensions by imposing a set of socio-cultural Brahminical ideas to meet the rural elite Gangacharan’s vested material interests.
          Brahminical spectacle features centrally in the Indian government’s mode of tackling COVID-19 crisis too, but for political reasons. In March, just before announcing the lockdown, the Prime Minister beseeched citizens’ to participate in symbolic efforts of onomatopoeic unity  in “fighting” the crisis. Consequently, considerable sections of Indian citizens ended up banging metal vessels and blowing conch shells. Later in April, while extending the lockdown he persuaded the citizens to light diyas[6], a metaphoric act of lifting the darkness that has befallen the world due to the Covid-19 outbreak 5). He largely refrained from reiterating policy matters regarding the crisis[7] and turned the scientific guidelines into a grotesque carnival. The Prime Minister’s imprecations sought to mobilize popular cultural and sub-cultural beliefs – first, that the crisis marks a period of darkness and second, that the threat ensuing from clamour and din might scare the virus away. Both these beliefs are anthropologically founded on Brahminism. Why was this necessary?
          India’s political history shows instances of charismatic leaders attaining cult personality status and enjoying public fandom. The carnival socio-culturally enhanced the present Prime Minister’s existent stardom and fan bhakti[8] (devotion) and drove a binary wedge between people. Supporters of the present Prime Minister and enthused crowds overzealously indulged in these activities, flaunting them on popular social media. Critics questioned the government (for which, read the Prime Minister) for its silence on policies governing isolation, quarantine, the cessation of economic activities due to lockdown, and the uncertainties facing disadvantaged sections of society. Critical discourse was effectively brought to rest by a personality cult that has been consciously crafted over a sustained period of time. So far, the opposition and critics have been unable to construct a viable alternate counteractive sphere against it. The Brahminical performance isolated and quarantined opposition and critics alike, while the government invoked the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 and the Disaster Management Act of 2005. These rules deemed the Covid-19 situation as a law-and-order problem rather than as a health issue[9], enabled the central government to concentrate and wield power over the states’ authority, and made a permanent dent on the spirit of democratic federalism without any major obstruction. Such is the effect of pandemics on India then and now.

[1] Indigenous unit of measurement; 1 seer = 933.10 grams.

[2] According to popular Hindu mythology, Goddess Durga is an embodiment of benevolent motherhood and malevolent evil slayer. She annihilates Mahishashura, the leader of a group of rebels engaged in a power struggle against the Gods and demigods.  

[3] Shiva or Mahesh is Durga’s husband who unlike other mainstream Gods bears many subversive qualities. He is a symbol of destruction.  

[4] A kind of tree

[5] Pandit or Pundit is an honorific title bestowed upon a learned scholar or an astute expert in a certain matter.

[6] Earthen pots made of clay mostly

[7] The policies were articulated by State health agencies like Indian Council of Medical Research and others. However, there have been persistent debates within the medical fraternity regarding India’s approach in dealing with the crisis. Some of its policies have also been criticized by doctors and health care workers. 

[8] Bhakti refers to a religious, socio-cultural movement in India based on the practice of devotion. It is popularly believed to have begun in 8th century and continued up to 17th century. The movement criticized Hindu orthodoxy, founded Sikhism and resulted in a reformation of Hinduism thus revived it on certain new terms and conditions. 


The coronavirus outbreak in Greece should have been a disaster. As a popular tourist destination, Greece receives over 30 million visitors per year, representing a potentially catastrophic risk of COVID-19. Somehow, however, the country seems to have avoided the worst pandemic ever in the age of the Anthropocene. Can we speak of a Greek miracle?
          Historically, pandemics have been a common health issue in Greece in the last few centuries. In ancient times, it would seem that Greece was the first Mediterranean country in Europe infected with leprosy: apparently it was brought by the Phoenicians in the middle of the second millennium from the Eastern Mediterranean. The country then received further infections during the military campaigns of Darius and Xerxes, as well as during the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the Romans to Assyria, Syria and Egypt, the Crusades, and the invasions of Turkish and Egyptian troops during the War of Independence.
           The most significant example was the small island close to Crete named Spinalonga, where people with leprosy were sent to stay in quarantine. Spinalonga, a small island in the Gulf of Elounda in north-eastern Crete, was used to isolate people affected by leprosy from 1903 to 1957. In 1901, the government passed a decree for the isolation of people affected by leprosy and established Spinalonga as the location for the colony. With Greece involved in several wars and struggling financially during the early twentieth century, the inhabitants of Spinalonga lived in very poor conditions. There was inadequate supply of fresh water for drinking and washing, and the patients were not given the ability to grow their own food. Supplies were obtained through people from nearby villages, who set up a daily market on the island; however, the government allowance the Spinalonga inmates received was often insufficient to cover food and medicines. It is obvious that some small islands were the places of isolation and social distances. Greek government passed the people to these small islands for their stay in quarantine to avoid the spread of the plague in the mainland of the country.
           Cholera and Spanish Flu were further recurring problems in Greece’s pandemic history, although the country managed to contain the viruses ahead of most of Europe. Cholera struck Greece in 1853-1854, brought by the French troops during the Crimean War, and again during the Balkan Wars (1912-13) when the Bulgarian troops brought it to northern Greece. Due to successive wars, medical assistance was not always available, so desperate people turned many times to religion through processions in honour of local saints, praying for their salvation from the epidemics. On 19 July 1918, a local newspaper entitled Thessalia was the first to announce the arrival of Spanish Flu in Greece, when an outbreak occurred in the city of Patras.
          In the twenty-first century, the Greek government has been able to move so rapidly not despite its crippled public healthcare system, but because of it. The government quickly banned all non-essential travel overseas, with one eye on the situation in Southern Europe. The weak healthcare system meant that harsh measures had to be implemented early in order to save lives and come together again in the future; daily broadcasting about the situation inculcated a sense of civic responsibility. The lockdown measures have been greeted with widespread support for the same reasons.
          From a cultural perspective, every discussion of the future always ends with wishes for good health and promises of seeing each other again. Health is of course the most important factor, and when the Greeks are united and together, the result is obvious: we fight against the “enemy” as heroes. Lockdown in Greece has revised the way we think about topics such as togetherness, family time, and the relations between people: all these are inherent to a culture in which relationships become all the stronger in the face of threats that may endanger or destroy them.
          From my perspective as a PhD Candidate of Modern Greek Philology studying comparative literature, environmental and post-humanities, literary theory, and phenomenology, COVID-19 has encouraged us to deepen and reinforce our connections with others and to unite our voices against the virus. Reading and writing has become both our anchor and our destination as we drift through a perilous world; our major challenge is to live with this horizon of uncertainty, and with the eco-anxiety that it occasions. This is now the defining aspect of reading and writing about the humanities in the era of the Covidocene. We are entering a new ‘pandemic turn’ in the humanities, especially in comparative literature where we can speak about a new theoretical movement of pandemic culture / theory as a hybrid theoretical form.
          The main challenge is to understand the new character of pandemics in the humanities, and how pandemics in turn form and shape our human nature. The post-humanities can deal with pandemics by addressing and highlighting the impact of the virus on our daily life (literature, economics, technology, robotics, metabolic poetics etc.). Writing, narrating or speaking about COVID-19 can help provide articulations of the phenomenon in the public sphere. Many students, teachers, and researchers have been drawn to the environmental humanities because of a desire to contribute, through academic work, to the well-being of society and of the planet. Even though we might feel that fundamental ideas about the meaning of human nature and other phenomena that pertain to civilization as a whole may not appear pertinent to the urgency of daily conversations in the news, our position within environmental studies urges us to acknowledge that we can contribute something by offering strategies and forms of communication that are crucially needed to deal with the concerns of today’s world.
          To think about our role as scholars and/or public intellectuals at the current moment, in the middle of an enormous global crisis that clearly has ecological dimensions to it as well, is both ironic and fascinating. It urges us to think about possible pathways. Can we contribute any ideas arising from our research to the current debate around COVID-19? What do we have to say about the crisis – either directly or with relation to issues that are connected with it – from our perspective as experts in the environmental humanities? How and where can we communicate our ideas? What concerns may be pushed to the background now that COVID-19 dominates the headlines, but that are still relevant and happening at the same time? These are just some of the questions regarding the future of the humanities and specifically the future of literary theories and comparative literature respectively. In Greece, as in other countries, we are busy considering all these perspectives and more. The pandemic has much to teach us, if only we will listen.



When my university, SOAS, University of London, closed its buildings on Wednesday 18 March, a few days ahead of the UK government lockdown and after most colleagues had already started teaching online, I must confess that I made no mad dash for the books in my office or in the SOAS Library.

In the months coming up to that day I had been on sabbatical anyway, and had been to the library and my office only rarely and stealthily. On the 18th of March my mind was absorbed by the Covid-19 related hospital crisis and sharply rising death toll in Lombardy, my home region, and by my 85-year-old mother sheltered (trapped?) alone in her small flat in Milan. (As it happens, she is hale and hearty, thank you, and has been more optimistic and positive than I throughout.) The “future planning” option in my brain had jammed or could only focus on the most everyday necessities – food, air, and family. Books, what books?

“Working without books” sends comparatists, of course, straight to Erich Auerbach’s claim of how he wrote Mimesis in Istanbul during World War II – and to Emily Apter’s brilliant essay “Global Translatio: The “invention” of Comparative Literature, Istanbul, 1933” that partly debunks the vision of the great scholar working alone in a cultural wasteland, reliant only on his memory. Apart from the fact that I am no Auerbach and what I am working on is no Mimesis, surely the big difference is that we have our material scanned and we have internet resources! So no books, but the internet… and more time?

More time and nowhere to go has turned out to be providential for my current work on world literary flows in the Cold War context. Indian readers encountered world literature – typically in the form of the short story – on the pages of magazines. Unprecedented numbers of contemporary stories in English translations were made available thanks to the competing internationalisms and publications programmes of Cold War powers. Hindi editors of story magazines like Kahani (The Story, 1954), Nai Kahaniyan (New Stories, 1959) and Sarika (Starling, 1960) took ample advantage of this wealth of material, though they generally keep quiet about sources.

As a result, Hindi readers in the 1960s and early 1970s were already reading the whole Postcolonial African and Latin American canon, as well as the Indonesian Mochtar Lubis and Pramoedya Ananta Toer (had any of us heard of him before Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities?), the Egyptian Mahmud Taimur, and the Syrian Layla Laalbaki, together with European writers such as Heinrich Böll and Alain Robbe-Grillet!

In the case of some of them I was familiar with their novels but not their short stories. Other names rang (vague) bells. (Name recognition is an experience of world literature that we have yet to reflect properly on. How do authors acquire name recognition? And how does recognition build up in our particular readers’ lives?)

Working without books (and libraries) meant that, after amassing thousands of Hindi magazine scans over the past couple of years in libraries in India and the US, I now had the time actually to read the stories, to scout around for the originals, and to figure out the logic and geo-literary vision (the “significant geographies”) of editors’ choices. This has been an interesting experience that has made me reflect not only on doing research in quarantine, but also on reading more.  

Normally I would have tried to find the original magazines where the stories were first published or translated into English. Alas, very few magazines have been digitised (I have written a short blog on ones which are here). For some, like the London Magazine, only a few issues are available, and with many gaps because of copyright issues. Lawrence Lessig has made a powerful case in Remix (2008) for the de-criminalisation of artistic sources for creative, non-commercial use. Non-readable pdfs of old magazine issues (many of which are now defunct) would give a better sense of how texts first appeared without being in direct competition with commercial printed or e-book formats.

Underscoring Shital Pravinchandra’s point that the short story comes into its own in world literature in the classroom, I found most of the stories’ texts on college websites, or on “greyzone” sites. Many of us, particularly with friends and colleagues in countries where universities have shallower pockets, have been practising “greyzone” copyright for a long time – i.e. passing on to them material behind journals’ paywalls.

Through I found links to the text of Ngugi’s story “Martyr” (published in Sarika as “Deshbhakt” in 1969), or the English translations of Garcia Marquez’ “Siesta del martes” (1962, tr. “Dopahar ki nind” in Hindi in 1973), or Robbe-Grillet’s “La Plage” (1962, as “Samudra ke taṭ”, 1969). (This rich site has very few stories from Middle Eastern and Asian languages, and contributing to it is now a priority!) And without the temptation to spend all my energy burrowing into archives, I finally had the time to read the stories – and to imagine how Hindi readers may have read them.

Juan Rulfo’s stark and laconic “Pahari” (originally “La Cuesta de las comadres”, 1953?, identified courtesy of the website gradesaver!) shows the grim realist quality of this father of the magical realists, while B. Traven’s very funny “Gadhon ka vyapari” (“Burro Trading”, originally written in German in 1929) pokes fun at its gringo narrator in a way reminiscent of Phanishwarnath Renu’s humour. Mario Benedetti’s Naya budget” (“El presumpsuesto”, 1949, published in Sarika 1969), about listless office workers enthused by the illusory prospect of a new payscale, could have been written by any Hindi New Short Story writer of the time (Amarkant, Bhishma Sahni, or Krishna Sobti’s office novella Yaron ke Yar). The title of João Guimarães Rosa’s hallucinatory “Nadi ka tisra kinara” (in English “The Third Bank of the River”) inspired Sarika’s editor, Kamleshwar, to suggest that such world literature stories offered a “third bank” between (or beyond) the two shores of the Cold War.

Published side by side in bumper special issues, these stories convey a powerful sense of world literature as a multitude of texts and languages to be discovered (as the cover of Sarika suggests), a “sensational internationalism” that is at odds with our current sense of the global Anglophone. And thanks to the quarantine, I could become a fitting, grateful, and awe-struck reader.

Francesca Orsini, SOAS, University of London

PS In the course of writing this, I think I have now found where the Hindi editor found at least some of the stories, the New York magazine Short Story International, which I definitely have to try and get hold of… once libraries re-open!

The cover and table of content of Sarika’s January 1969 special issue, with stories by J. Guimarães Rosa, H. Böll, V. Sangi (Nivkh), Ngugi, M. Hejazi, M. Lubis, M. Djilas, Dhep Mahapaurya, Mario Benedetti, A. Unnath, M. Taimur, H. Slazer, Abioseh Nicol, Nguyen Vien Thong, Fouad al-Tikerly, Abdul-Salam Ojeili and A. Robbe-Grillet, among others.

Short Story International March 1954 issue (ed. Sam Stankel), from where Kamleshwar probably got the stories by Traven and Borges.

Week 3. Day 2. 7 April 2020. 5:20 PM

It’s another beautiful spring day. The sun is shining. But we are to stay home, to be safe and to protect each other and the NHS. The daily update is on. Dominic Raab is leading the briefing while Boris Johnson recovers in intensive care. The calm and steady rhetoric of the speakers cannot smooth over the conundrum all around, in the air, hovering beyond and above the words of reassurance that the small TV screen before me is spewing out. When will science catch up with this wily virus so we can all come out of isolation? What will happen to the already financially troubled SOAS? Where are our students? Are they coping? How can third world countries cope with what the first world countries can’t? But I sit in my comfortable loft room and count my blessings. Up here, at least for one day, I can feel the sunshine and the gentle breeze through my open skylight, hear children playing in their backyards, and even smell the barbecue cooking deliciously on invisible grills. On my desert island, I don’t think about the uncertainties. I fantasize. I imagine a future SOAS saved by innovative online teaching. I wish for this feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’ to last. I dream that a harmonious world will rise out of the coronavirus wreckage. I will humanity to leave behind conflict, violence and destruction. And I contemplate the future of comparative literature against a backdrop of discourses on cultural difference.

Trump’s violent name-and-blame rhetoric – ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘Chinese rape of our country’ – bores me. The comparisons between ‘Western’ democracy and ‘Oriental’ despotism, between European liberal values and Asian Confucian ethos, or between diversity among European or Asian responses, do not excite me. I think of Du Fu instead, of his poetry and the Chinese culture of wen, and of what his life and poetry can mean for us today. Du Fu (712-770) was on BBC Four last night. Our enthusiastic host, Michael Wood, tells us that he is the greatest Chinese poet. He wanted to be a civil servant but failed at the examinations twice and was fated to live in poverty and obscurity. The An Lu Shan Rebellion (755-763) devastated Tang Dynasty and Du Fu’s life. He wandered to escape the war, taking his family from one city to another, and for a long time lived on a boat, in fact, until he died at the age of 58 on the Yangtze River. His disappointments did not diminish his strong sense of history or his moral engagement, and he wrote the most moving poetry about the quotidian suffering of the common people and conscripted soldiers. In time he came to be known as ‘poet sage’ (comparable to Confucius’s ‘philosopher sage’), in contradistinction to Li Bai’s ‘poet immortal’.

Du Fu, the more Confucian of the two poets, remained committed to the human society, while Li Bai (701-762) sought transcendence in solitude, nature and wine. I have a soft spot for Li Bai, the free spirit who scoffs at man’s worldly concerns, celebrates the transience of life on earth, and soars with us to mountaintops and clouds. With him we see immortality in our reunion with nature.

Here among flowers a single jug of wine,
No close friends here, I pour alone
And lift cup to bright moon, ask it to join me,
Then face my shadow and we become three.
The moon never has known how to drink,
All my shadow does is follow my body,
But with moon and shadow as companions a while,
This joy I find will surely last till spring.
I sing, the moon just lingers on,
I dance, and my shadow scatters wildly.
When still sober we share friendship and pleasure,
Then entirely drunk each goes his own way—
Let us join in travels beyond human feelings
To meet far in the river of stars.

‘Drinking Alone by Moonlight’. Tr. Stephen Owen.
The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High Tang (Yale 1981), 138

Du Fu brings us down to earth, puts us back in the society we are trying to escape, and throws us into the quandary of daily life and mundane concerns.

I came through the gate, I heard a crying out,
my youngest child had died of starvation …
And this thought obsesses me—as a father,
Lack of food resulted in infant death;
I could not have known that even after harvest
Through our poverty there would be such distress.
All my life I’ve been exempt from taxes,
and my name is not registered for conscription.
Brooding on what I have lived through, if even I
know such suffering,
The common man must surely be rattled by the winds;
Then thoughts silently turn to those who have lost
all livelihood
and to troops in far garrisons.
Sorrow’s source is as huge as South Mountain,
a formless, whirling chaos that the hand cannot grasp.

From ‘Going from the Capital to Feng-hsien, Singing my Feelings’.
Tr. Stephen Owen.
The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High Tang (Yale 1981), 196.

Today, it is Du Fu’s pity for those ‘who have lost all livelihood’, despite his own loss, that strikes a chord: the sorrow for all our losses, brought into sharp focus in the age of coronavirus, and for what none of us can overcome, our very humanity. Our selfish desires make us hog, con, flout rules, and harm. Du Fu’s poetry, and the wen culture in which he was schooled, show us that it is possible and necessary to discipline desires into empathy so that they can become forces for good. Chinese wen reminds me of Arabic adab, the fundamental education of a cultured Muslim, and of the other protagonist of wen and adab, of storytelling like Dreams of the Red Mansion and The Plum in the Golden Vase in Chinese, and Kalila wa Dimna and The Thousand and One Nights in Arabic. Here, the fates of the individual and community are bound up together. When wily desire, of the king, his officers and subjects, is educated into proper love, harmony graces human society. If love is left to run wild and turn into unchecked cunning desire, dynasties and families fall. Isn’t it time to bring these two literary cultures together and find out what they say about how we can tame our passions and become good human beings? I can always dream, no?

For some time, scholars across the humanities and social sciences have been building a stronger and stronger case that culture and society should be thought across—and not within—national borders. Key figures in left thought in Britain, like Tom Nairn, Raymond Williams and (perhaps most famously) Benedict Anderson, analyzed what came to be post-nationalism with powerful persuasion, to the extent that most solid social and humanistic study has become comparative studies and more and more literary study is becoming comparative literature of some type.  In this sense, those new studies of nationalism added a geopolitical element to traditional comparative literature, something like the way postcolonial studies infused older “commonwealth literature” with political commitment. As borders lost their salience, those old ways of studying literature as British, American, or Chinese lost their hold over literary research, even if curricula sometimes still cling to their traditional structures.
          Anderson was particularly fascinated not just with the imagined and ethereal nature of nationalism, but also with its paradoxical power to move and inspire individuals to sacrifice so much for its ideal.  In the United States, I have argued, nationalism in the post-national era has taken a specific path, built on an equally striking paradox. As life here has become ever more globalized—in terms of economics, consumption patterns, travel, language, culture, literature—important definers of our culture have become increasingly domesticated. A good example of this is on American university campuses where research is built on international exchange of various types, even as university administrators roll back language requirements and funding for the study of languages.
          Another example is American politics. I attempted to describe, critique, and expose America’s domestication problem in an academic study that took its final manuscript form months before the election of Donald Trump as president, so although the study focuses on the 20th and 21st centuries, it never mentions his name. Although he represents a rupture from certain traditions in American culture, he is also the culmination of decades of the domesticating trend in the American public sphere. During his first term, no issue has been too transnational to be turned into a means to challenge his domestic rivals. Neither China, Israel/Palestine, the Koreas, Cuba, Yemen, the European Union, Russia, nor any other global space have any significance under this regime other than as fodder for talking points to propagate on the government’s preferred domestic mainstream and social media outlets.
          Although here in the United States it is not spoken of this way, the current pandemic seems almost scripted to expose the dangers of our domesticating impulse. Two of the worst early outbreaks were in countries—China and Iran—our government had gone out of its way to antagonize. Halting flights and building walls seemed to do nothing to slow down the spread, and it eventually emerged that test kits, protective gear and other basic material depended on globalized supply chains—often traceable back to the very hot zones of the virus like Wuhan or Milan. Global cooperation around the pandemic’s politics, science, and manufacturing seem crucial. (The number of essays in U.S.-based prestige journals arguing that the Trump administration has dismantled the U.S.’s standing as the leader of the world have spiked with the pandemic.) Finally, the quotidian experience of self-quarantining has turned into a uniquely transnational experience in the sense that this odd abrupt change in lifestyle has taken effect almost everywhere all at once, and with not very much variation, so that we contact relatives on other continents and find them also washing their hands, trying not to touch their faces, and holding to or defying instructions not to leave home. For these reasons, multiple attempts by the Trump administration to erase the global victimizing of the disease and find a ‘foreign’ target to blame these events on have failed so far.
          The study of comparative literature has never been particularly nationalist, but interest within the field in broadening its transnational component and in testing new and better tools for reading across ever widening palettes for global comparison has increasingly infiltrated almost every discussion. The field’s traditional emphasis on continental Europe has been exposed as narrow and unsustainable. Now when comparative literature scholars practice their métiers, they are inevitably considering a wider swath of the global—and doing so in increasingly innovative ways. This means that comparative literature scholarship is needed in the United States more than ever as an antidote—or at least a challenge—to the domesticating impulse that obfuscates the highly globalized nature of our culture. But this also places a great responsibility on us not to take the easy route but rather to deal with the problem of the global in all the complexities it forces upon us both before and after Covid-19.
          For example, merely producing a language to discuss the transnational at this moment feels almost insurmountable, because of the many paradoxes that arise even without going beyond points skimmed across in these musings. Nationalism is both an imagined category and one of the most powerful motivators of the contemporary citizen; the United States is as integrated in the economics, politics, and culture of the globe as it has ever been, even as its politics and media culture have become savagely domestic; processes of globalization have become more and more inclusive of elites and states even as they have become less and less inclusive of classes and communities. These paradoxes demand our attention as scholars. That leads to the final paradox: focusing on globality without leaving home.


The predominant sense of “culture” once meant something that was grown in a petri-dish. In our current period of coronavirus pandemic, it is once again being framed biologically. Living in lockdown, culture is symbolised for me by sourdough being cultivated in the fridge. The periodization of historical time is governed by my meal plan. And my academic curiosity has also shifted into a four-walled space.

Eighteenth-century socially critical idylls, such as those by the German writer Jean Paul — which lightly but ironically depict the frustrations of domestic life — now resonate with me. Epicureanism, or the philosophy of bodily pleasures, and the question of how nuanced the reception of Epicurus actually was in the Age of Enlightenment, is suddenly especially interesting (another book added to my Amazon order). Looking outside, who knew there was once the idea of an Epicurean garden? I didn’t, and now I want one.

But the cultural questions about current times extend beyond the home, of course. In the first few days of lockdown, a few cultural critics — notably the reliably contrarian Claire Fox — were quick to decry a police state. Foucauldian medicalisation critiques seemed freshly relevant to some, although opinion polls suggest that most people, in the UK anyway, support the public health measures in place. I soon logged off from the debates, as part of a social media diet.  

I do not wish to trivialise the pandemic, nor the cultural-political questions that arise from it. I am not leading a Ludwig II-like life in isolation, listening to Wagner on my own as drink goes to my head. But I have become wary of wading into a debate when I am out of my depth. The guiding discourse at the moment is epidemiological, about which I have very little prior knowledge. That is not to say that the sciences should overrule cultural considerations. I welcome the fact that, more broadly, expertise is explicitly front and centre of policy again, and that the public sees that expertise is never clear-cut. The background of facts is often

dispute, which is now played out in questions tabled to daily Downing Street briefings. I am simply cautious about how my own humanities-based work might apply to world events.

To take one example, in the past year I have spoken and written about luxury, both academically and more publicly. I also teach a module on “luxury and liberty”, which considers Germany and Britain, and to a lesser extent France, between 1750 and 1850. Luxury is often a litmus test for the socio-political direction of society, especially at times of civil upheaval. I’ve given a few examples of this already, and there are others. In the Second World War, those who continued dining in hotels were scathingly dubbed part of a “Ritzkrieg”. In the current coronavirus crisis, luxury conglomerate LVMH was entitled to take advantage of the French government’s scheme for financial aid for companies, but decided to go without as it proved to be a PR problem. In the salubrious suburbs of Connecticut, a soirée is reported to have been a “superspreader” event. And the Austrian Alps are said to have kept a lethal secret: skiing hotspots have been accused of hiding COVID-19 cases. The Alpine area has, of course, long been associated in the cultural imagination with cosmopolitanism, decadence, and disease — in fiction and film. That upscale splurges lead to the downfall of society is also a popular idea, applied — often wrongly — to the end of the Roman Empire, the Dutch Golden Age, or the French monarchy. But particularly in the cases of the recent Austrian and US gatherings at ski resorts or high-end homes, the media stories are borne out by epidemiology. They may gain more traction since they tap into well-worn cultural narratives, but they are neither fake news nor obviously caused by the cultural topes that I explore, historically, with my students. I’d like to make a cultural argument for our present pandemic, in short, but for the moment I’m wavering.

I’m not proposing that we shouldn’t speculate on how our scholarly work relates to, and might inform, cultural debates surrounding COVID-19. And obviously, some colleagues’ interventions will be much more relevant than mine. It is more that the severity of the situation has made me step back from wanting to make my own reflections while sat at home. That needn’t mean that I practise silence, though — clearly not, since I have submitted this reflection…

The mission of the BBC, for instance, is to not only to inform, but also to entertain (the old Horatian tandem dulce et utile). In a similar way, perhaps now more than ever it is reasonable for us in the humanities to content ourselves with being, well, interesting. That is a value in itself. Isolation is many things, and it is experienced inequitably. But we surely all have some degree of boredom in common. My modest goal, not least inspired by lockdown living, is to distract (myself and others) — in an enjoyable, and hopefully in an intellectual way. All while privately keeping up with the latest social issues, political thinking, and scientific insights. Such, at least, is my personal quest for culture in quarantine.

April 23, 2020

I was born with two eyes to see the world as far as my legs could take me. But now my legs are paralyzed, and my sight limited. I can only see a tiny fragment of the world, as much as my window allows me to see. No more can I find the door that leads me outside. I might die before feeling the soil under my feet; before being out there in the sea or ocean; before listening to the birds’ song and the silence of trees in a deep forest; before climbing up the mountains to see how far those unending valleys take me; before discovering or rediscovering anything left to us by the Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians and Persians, the Indus Valley people and American Indians, Raphael and Michelangelo – before seeing, once again, the masterpieces of nature and humanity.

The streets are emptied. The houses are full. I have lost count of the days of my exiled life. You may wonder whether it is a prison or castle window I am looking from. But I have not committed a crime to be imprisoned. Nor am I a fairy-princess shut out in a medieval castle. I am told I am dangerous. Some invisible enemy can easily turn me into a killing machine when I leave my nutshell. It can do so in a second, against my will. So I have to stay in my confined world while the enemy is waiting out there, at my doorway.

What am I to do? There is no one to help me regain my faculty of reflection. Or maybe there is. Who can make my hopeless present comprehensible better than a writer? Who can supply a longer list of narratives about the instinct of human survival and the sufferings of those facing an unknown reality better than literature? What writers have thought decades or centuries ago may be still useful several generations later. I start to think about fictional characters like Alice. What if she had never fallen down a rabbit hole? Were she given a choice she would probably have never swapped her cozy birthplace for Wonderland. Had she not fallen into a strange world accidentally there would have been no tale of her adventures. Should I also start to see my forced exile from the world as a chance to rediscover life? Am I not given a sign that I should stop seeking pleasure among people and start to learn something new about myself? There is a change in the outside world; perhaps something needs to be changed about myself, too. New reality seems alien, violent, chaotic, senseless. I am not heard. By whom? The cause of it is itself both sightless and invisible. But I have to accept reality as it is, even if my thoughts cannot quite conceive it. It makes no sense to fight against the senseless. I should rather attempt to find my way around even if I have to abandon my old habits and tastes just as Alice changes her body sizes to become part of a fantastic reality. It is time to learn something new about myself. It is time to abandon some of my old habits, no matter how hard it is. Don’t you remember the sufferings of the narrator of A la Recherche du temps perdu, going to bed without being solaced by his mother’s goodnight kiss or sleeping in unfamiliar rooms at different moments in his life? Yet was not breaking with his usual habits life-altering? Was it not the act of quitting his old habits and beliefs that led to his development as an artist, as a creative thinker? In any case, breaking with old habits does not necessarily mean forgetting the past, like the inhabitants of Márquez’s Macondo infected with insomnia plague and amnesia.

Then I reflect on the lot of Alice and narrator. Both are left alone in strange situations, just as I am. Yet their intimidating shelters are not permanent. Alice may walk out of the underworld, the narrator from the room; I can go nowhere. I am not in Wonderland to travel back to my birthplace like Alice; nor am I suffering from the loss of time and memory like Marcel in order to make a book out of my experiences. No longer can I move in space.

Yet time remains in my possession even if space does not. No longer do I count down my remaining hours, days, months. The clock is ticking no more in my nutshell. I start to follow the rhythm of the Earth. I plant a flower, a tree. I feel time passing and the seasons changing. I see the Sun moving in the sky at daylight. At night I meet the far-away stars and the moon. Time, it seems, is no longer measured by a ‘pocket watch’, or by a ‘white rabbit’ on earth. All rest in deep silence at nightfall. Mother earth has won back its natural rhythm.

How much I would have preferred to be lodged somewhere out there in nature than within these senseless walls. Who knows, I might have even built my habitat in a cave and started a new life far from human society, had I been as lucky as Robinson Crusoe. Then my life would have become more animated than it is. Things would have had come back to life. I would have been able to live in harmony with nature. But my ship has not been wrecked in a storm during a far-away journey. I have not ended up on an island like Crusoe.

How long will I stay in my nutshell? I can give no answer. Had I been a snail, I could have been locked in my shell for a lifetime. Had I been a once strong and noble lion, I would have become a weaker and poor creature in a cage, awaiting perhaps nothing else but death. Though the lion is still able to survive in a cage. But nature has not imprisoned me in my shell like a snail. Nor have people brought me in a cage like a lion. I am neither a snail nor a lion. I am a human being. I need to think, to imagine, to nourish my soul in order to animate my self-awareness. I desire to be in contact with life and with others. Is there a tie which holds me to the outside world as before? I desire to listen again to my heartbeat when I hear the rhythms and sounds of music and dance. No dance scene, not even the iconic tango in the movie Scent of a Woman will ever be equal to the thrill of the original. I am in search of deeper emotions, of diversity of feelings that the simple adjustment of colors can tell in a painting; or a combination of gestures, speech and music in a theatre piece. And I need to share my feelings with a friend. I have had enough of looking at life through a window. Did not a wise man called Pirsig tell us that the journey of discovery is the one that is traveled with a motorbike rather than the one seen from the automobile window? How long will I continue to see the world through my nutshell?

I used to see the world lit by the Sun. Now I see things in a man-made light. A phone has gone up as a barrier between the surrounding world and me. Images on a phone screen are now shaping my worldview and beliefs. No longer do I see objects as they are; I can only see their shadows projected on the screen. No longer do I see people made out of flesh; I can only see phantoms of those I have never met before. I start to believe in what my eyes see. I start to live the life of unknown people coming into vision on my phone and TV screens. I forget those I have met and known; I find comfort in my daydreams and beliefs nourished by a TV and phone; I start to look like the inmates of Plato’s Cave deceived by their eyes. Like them, I lose the faculty of imagining what is hidden from my sight. Like them, I start to believe that what I see on the screen is the real world and not an illusion. I change reality for fantasy little by little. No longer am I longing for a day when I will leave my nutshell. This strange world is becoming familiar to me.

Perhaps I should revolt against my lot, perhaps I should find delight in welcoming back the real world. Perhaps I should no longer trust my eyes, especially now when my eyesight is more limited than ever before. I need to open myself to the unacquainted world, like the brave prisoner escaped from Plato’s Cave. Like him, I will have to make a painful journey to gain self-awareness. Like him, I will discover real things that are at first unknown and incomprehensible to me. Then I may regain my power of reflection, just as the brave prisoner gains wisdom when he is able to direct his gaze toward the Sun.

I was born with two eyes to see the world as far as my legs could take me. But now my legs are paralyzed, and my sight limited. One day my eyes will see more than a tiny fragment of the world. One day I will find the door which leads me outside.


As a grantee of the Swiss Confederation and a PhD candidate at the University of Lausanne, I am currently working on a research project on the aesthetics and philosophy of time in the early twentieth century prose. This project includes writings of Catherine Colomb, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust. Its boundaries have been extended to the study of language and metaphors of war in my presentations at the 8th Congress of the European Society of Comparative Literature (ESCL) (Lille, 2019), Annual Conference of the Swiss Association of Comparative and General Literatures (Lausanne, 208) and 11th Congress of German Franco-Romanistic Association (Osnabrück, 2018).


I have published on Virginia Woolf and Catherine Colomb in Journal of Gender Studies and peer-reviewed books (such as Apprenties Sages. Apprentiissages au féminin, Reims, 2018). Other work on Colomb, Woolf, and Proust will appear in Études de littérature des xxe et xxie siècles (ed. Didier Alexandre, Classiques Garnier) and ESCL publications.




We now live in a Covid-19 world. Swiftly, a consensus seems to have emerged around the benefits of ‘social distancing’ for regulating disease for humanity as a whole. While social distancing is, as the name implies, a social practice, its underpinnings are scientific. As a medically ordained method, its claims are potentially universalist. It presumes the equality of all human beings with no acknowledgement of power relations.  However, as the history of caste in India suggests, viewing social distancing uncritically, as an undiluted good, can be dangerous.

In India, ‘social distancing’ invokes, and mirrors, distinct social histories of preservation and upholding of caste hierarchies. Social distancing has for long been a central principle and key weapon in the coercive regulation of caste. The discriminatory treatment meted out to Dalits (formerly ‘untouchables’) repeatedly bespeaks the ‘social distancing’ followed by savarnas (so-called ‘non-untouchables’) long before the pandemic. The low social status and economic marginalisation of Dalits made them vulnerable to the power of the savarnas and their practice of social distancing. In other words, social distancing has been historically a part of an ensemble of savarna social and cultural life. Social distancing signals a separation, an alienation, founded on nearness and farness, inclusion and exclusion, inside and outside, purity and pollution, home and world. Thus, Aniket Jaaware, in his recent book Practicing Caste: On Touching and Not Touching underscores that caste marks the simple divide between touching and not touching–what is considered touchable and untouchable.

Our histories in India overflow with examples of Dalit distancing. A structuring principle of such distancing has been the construction of separate ghettos for Dalits outside villages and cities–a Chamar tola in the north, a cheri and hulgeri in the south, a wada in the west–meant to distance even the shadow of a Dalit. The description of the village in Tamil writer Bama’s memoir Karukku illustrates a geographical division based on caste hierarchy. This organization of space acts as a material context and marker of social distancing oriented toward the exclusion of an Other (‘untouchable’) body. It embodies a systematic form of caste inequality, a way of engineering relationships between castes that becomes naturalized as part of our landscape–public spaces/resources (temples, schools, roads, parks, water tanks) were not accessible to ‘untouchables’ until the disrupting arrival of the British.

Examples of such social engineering abound in literature. Savarna Hindi didactic literature of the early twentieth century from the north, similar to many other regions, explicitly commanded its women to maintain social distance from achhut (‘untouchable’) women and men. Supposedly morally virtuous and chaste savarna women had to be kept away from the allegedly loud, raucous, unfeminine, uncultured and shameless Dalit women! Even greater were worries of intimate sexual liaisons and illicit collusions between savarna women and Dalit men. The ‘solution’ – social distancing. Savarna Arya Samaji reformers extensively distributed soaps among Dalits, as their ‘dirty bodies’ were a physical and moral problem. For a more recent example, we might again turn to Bama’s memoir Karukku. In an early scene, Bama as a child witnesses a Dalit man carrying food wrapped in a package of leaves to a savarna man by a long dangling string. The reason? To keep the food from being ‘contaminated’ by his touch.

Notions of dirt and cleanliness are not socially neutral enterprises. They are located within, and are constitutive of, space and social relations. Amidst coronavirus fears, the repeated calls to wash hands manage and mask tensions. They camouflage structural, occupational and physical constraints. The history of caste teaches us that the criteria of cleanliness and hygiene is implicitly labelled a characteristic savarna value and used to strengthen cultural, spatial and social boundaries and distances.

This history teaches us that ‘social distancing’ is always expressed in a context where the practice acquires a cultural and social meaning. Thus, in contemporary India the medical procedure of social distancing helps savarnas to reinforce caste prejudices in the name of science. Rumours of the dangers of meat eating, of the good of vegetarianism and the practice of namaste, of the infectiousness of migrants, labourers, and domestic servants allow the powerful to invoke ‘contagion’ to segregate and stigmatise under the cover of law, that is, without attracting the legal force of constitutional provisions targeting caste discrimination. The poor (including a large section of the Dalits) are forced to beg, collect leftover food, and do menial jobs to survive in this situation of lockdown. As widely reported in the media, migrant poor are sprayed with chemicals as they wearily trek home over hundreds of miles. The image of an unclean ‘untouchable’ gets reinforced in the circulation of these notions. Medical lockdown turns out to be a social lockdown in the Indian context. The result is a thoroughgoing dehumanisation of some in relation to others.

An inquiry into caste discourses, then, should give us pause about the current prevalence of social distancing. The World Health Organization too has realized the problems in the language of ‘social distancing’ and is advocating against the use of the phrase, instead recommending ‘physical distancing’ (equally problematic) and ‘social solidarity’. However,  the history of caste teaches us that a mere change of, and sensitivity to, terminologies will not take us far. In the Indian context, ‘physical distancing’ is practiced as a custom and, therefore, is socially sanctioned. Within countries like India, the language of social distancing should not be allowed to give caste apologists another reason to defend untouchability. As has been argued by Dalit activists, caste is aided by the virus in its valorization of the idea of segregation.[1]

A radical and thoroughgoing vigilance is needed with regard to discourses of social distancing, in India and elsewhere. Discourses and practices of social distancing should not be permitted to congeal anywhere around seemingly fixed identities (East Asians or African Americans in the United States, Muslims or Dalits in India, the poor everywhere). Concepts like ‘social/physical distancing’ have great power to generate discourses and practices which reinforce cultural and social segregation and hierarchy.  The history of caste teaches us that the ‘scientificity’ and ‘contextuality’ of distancing needs to be marked by a thoroughgoing and non-negotiable ethics of dignity and rights, including–or perhaps most especially–for those marked by ‘contagion’.

Charu Gupta, K. Satyanarayana and S. Shankar are collaborators in the Critical Caste Studies project. Charu Gupta teaches in the Department of History at University of Delhi. Her recent publications include The Gender of Caste, and (co-edited with S. Shankar) Caste and Life Narratives. K. Satyanarayana teaches in the Department of Cultural Studies, EFL-University, Hyderabad. He has recently co-edited Dalit Text: Aesthetics and Politics Re-imagined (Routledge, 2019). S. Shankar teaches in the Department of English at University of Hawai`i at ​Mānoa and is a novelist and cultural critic; his most recent book is the novel Ghost in the Tamarind.





[1] See, for example, Jeya Rani, ‘An Invisible Virus Highlights the Virulence of an Age-Old Visible Virus’ (

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